BERLIN - If buildings could talk, what would they tell us?
German arthouse director Wim Wenders, Robert Redford and four other filmmakers ponder, prod and probe the "souls" of six iconic landmarks in a premiere at the Berlin film festival.
Unusually for the big screen, bricks and mortar take the place of the main protagonist in "Cathedrals of Culture", which, despite its lofty title, features no religious edifice nor is it devoted solely to high altars of the arts.
Shot in 3D with the buildings, which include a high security prison in Norway and a US research institute, finding their own "voice", the movie explores their role in society, the ability to inspire, and what they say about us.
Wenders, who kicks off the film with his visual ode to the 1963 Berlin Philharmonic concert hall, said 3D's creative use was still at an early stage but he had wanted to explore its "great affinity" with architecture.
"Only with 3D cinema do our eyes finally have the freedom our ears have already had for so long," the 68-year-old filmmaker, who is also the executive producer, said in press notes for the new movie.
Best known for hits such as "Wings of Desire" and "Buena Vista Social Club", Wenders won a second Oscar nomination for his 2011 3D documentary "Pina" dedicated to the late choreographer Pina Bausch.
Soaring shots scope the bright yellow, tent-like roof of the Philharmonic, by architect Hans Scharoun whose innovative and controversial design has endured, unlike its erstwhile detested neighbour, the Berlin Wall.
Wenders said its modernity had swayed him, as Scharoun, whose ideas were considered "degenerate" by the Nazis, broke new ground by placing the musicians at the centre of the auditorium.
A polio institute to a prison
Veteran US actor Redford, who has hit screens lately in the one-man-show "All Is Lost", opted for The Salk Institute in California where virologist Jonas Salk, pioneer of the polio vaccine, collaborated with architect Louis Kahn.
Set to music by Moby, the film by Redford lingers on its geometric angles and symmetry, panning out to show the open space between the two wings and asks how the building influences the scientists working in its laboratories.
He said he had settled on the institute after growing up not far from it and remembering the impact of its polio breakthrough.
"I had a mild case of it myself when I was 11 years old," he said in press notes.
"When Jonas Salk invented the vaccine, it was just shatteringly big news."
Running at well over two hours, "Cathedrals of Culture", which won applause at its Berlinale screening, is demanding of the spectator and its component six films could stand to be arranged into shorter segments.
But its sweeping photographic images, novel ideas on a building taking on a life of its own and 3D poking about of its nooks and crannies extends the movie's appeal beyond architecture aficionados.
A stand-out section is Danish director Michael Madsen's film about Halden Prison where barless cell windows look out on to the Norwegian forest and a woman guard plays basketball with hardened inmates, but rules remain strict and absolute.
"Social engineering, rehabilitation, that is what I was interested in exploring," he said in a Q&A session after the screening.
It also contains a fleeting moment of humour when one particularly tough-looking prisoner, among a string of inmates who unflinchingly glare into the camera, finds he can't stop breaking into a smile.
Old library and art houses
Juxtaposing the prison's modernity is the 19th century National Library of Russia in Saint Petersburg.
With the modern age whizzing by outside, the film savours the beauty of the undigitized library's books, the tick tock of the pendulum clock or the echoey corridors where female librarians dust books by hand.
Also featured is the Pompidou Centre in Paris, affectionately explored by Brazilian director Karim Ainouz, a trained architect, who imagines the building's fear that people will lose interest in it.
And Margreth Olin said she had liked the concept, while exploring the Oslo Opera House, that buildings "remember" visitors or employees and had keenly felt that her film should have a female narrator.
"The building started speaking to me," she said after the screening - and, it was a woman, she quipped.